First things first. The Biden administration is weak, ineffective, and indecisive in its handling of America’s foreign and national security affairs. Based on its record so far, it would be easy, and likely accurate, to conclude that in handling the Great China Spy Balloon Caper of 2023, Team Biden showed itself to be weak, ineffective, and indecisive.
Simply criticizing the administration for failing to shoot down the Chinese balloon earlier during the course of the wind-borne vehicle’s leisurely trek across America, however, misses important policy aspects of this episode.
First, we do not know everything about the capabilities, intent, and purpose(s) behind either the Chinese operators of the clumsy balloon and its clunky cargo, or of precisely what our country’s capabilities were or are in defending against and neutralizing whatever threat it posed.
Figuring out why China’s communist leaders do what they do, is no easier than deciphering decision-making inside the Kremlin, which, as Winston Churchill said, is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Did Beijing send this almost amateurish balloon device cruising over our sovereign territory simply to see what we would do? Was it actually equipped with listening devices of sufficient capability to pick up communications that are not collectable by other means, notably, satellites? Was China’s President Xi Jinping hoping that the Americans would take action to neutralize its capabilities in order to gauge our jamming abilities? Was it a ploy to accomplish a diplomatic goal, having no real intelligence purpose at the outset?
What actually did our defense and intelligence agencies know about the balloon, and what in fact did we do about it? If our government is to be believed (something that is neither always the case nor never the case), and we had neutralized the balloon’s ability to gather sensitive or meaningful intelligence as it passed over various facilities on the ground, why not continue tracking and monitoring it so long as it did not pose any meaningful threat; thereby enabling our foreign intelligence agencies to gain additional intelligence about what it was transmitting?
While some pundits were highly critical of the administration for failing to let the American people, or at least some of us, in on the balloon’s existence and travel itinerary, that is of little actual concern. The civilian population at large does enjoy some absolute or constitutional right to know everything that is known to our foreign intelligence or national defense agencies in real time, absent a situation posing an immediate and serious risk to civilian populations or individuals – something that appears not to have been the case here.
Unquestionably, the public side to this incident could have been handled far more professionally and intelligibly than it was. The Pentagon’s public explanation about why action was not taken sooner bordered on nonsensical. Why not simply tell the American people the facts: “we have neutralized the device’s ability to gather meaningful intelligence, it poses no danger to any individuals or facilities on the ground, and we will take it down if and when it does so”? Does it really require an Air Force brigadier general to make such a statement (presuming it was in fact the case)?
I am neither a regular reader of nor avid fan of Max Boot, but he is correct in noting the unfortunate “hysteria” with which many conservative politicians blasted the administration for failing to have more quickly or perhaps more belligerently “shot down” the Chinese spy balloon.
Failure to shoot down a balloon that appears to have posed no meaningful threat to our nation’s security at the moment it crossed into our air space, does not prove we have “surrendered American airspace to Communist China” as former President Trump declared; nor does it establish America as a second-rate power, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) bemoaned.
If subsequent information establishes that our government was not able to have neutralized the spy balloon’s ability to gather intelligence as it traversed our airspace, or that the device in fact did pose a serious danger to those on the ground or to our nation’s military readiness, then serious criticism of the administration’s failure to have acted sooner is clearly warranted. In the meantime, there is hardly a shortage of very real, very serious, and very timely national security problems on which to take Biden to task.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.